A group of Southern California homeowners charge that the rupture of a water main during last week’s mudslide released as much as 10 million gallons of water into the community of Montecito, overwhelming a flood control system already deluged with heavy rains.
The plaintiffs leveled claims of negligence against both the Montecito Water District and Southern California Edison, saying that the utility contributed to the wildfire that denuded hillsides by failing to properly maintain power poles, transformers and surrounding property. The result, the suit alleges, was the Thomas Fire, which burned a modern-day California record of 282,000 acres, obliterating ground cover that typically holds hills together in heavy rains.
Southern California Edison said in a statement that it was premature to comment on pending litigation.
The December firestorm and the subsequent failure of a major drinking water main in Montecito in the early morning hours of Jan. 9 set the stage for catastrophic flooding and subsequent mudslides, which damaged hundreds of homes and killed at least 20 people, according to the lawsuit, which was filed last week and amended Tuesday.
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Three residents and one Santa Barbara business filed the lawsuit, but one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs said he expects hundreds of other neighbors and business owners to join the litigation.
The lawsuit accuses the electric company and water district of negligence, inverse condemnation, violations of the Public Utilities Code and numerous other failures.
“Each gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds, and 9 million gallons of water weighs 75,060,000 pounds or 37,530 tons,” said the lawsuit, filed in Santa Barbara County Superior Court. “The millions of gallons of water released from the MWD system joined with rainwater in the local creeks and streams in the hillsides above Montecito, causing erosion, devastation and destruction before its journey [to]Montecito.”
The lawsuit claims that the trouble began more than a month earlier. Edison allegedly failed to maintain its overhead electrical lines and equipment and did not remove trees and brush around the installations. The suit also charges that power poles were overloaded with communications equipment “from shared usage by telecommunications and cable TV providers who were joint owners or renters.”
Given “red flag” fire warnings, the suit suggests Edison should have shut down the electrical grid in the arid Ventura County communities.
Instead, a pair of transformers, roughly six miles apart in Santa Paula and the Upper Ojai area exploded or caught fire in the midst of a heavy windstorm. The fire eventually burned into Santa Barbara County, blackening more acres than any fire in the modern history of California. It destroyed more than 1,000 structures. The fire also stripped away the grass, brush and trees that typically hold together topsoil.
The Montecito lawsuit also questions whether Southern California Edison properly maintained and inspected its utility poles. The litigation contends that the utility had to pay $37 million in fines to the state’s Public Utility Commission because of its failure to properly maintain and inspect power poles prior to firestorms that swept Southern California in 2007.
Officials at the Montecito Water District did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Southern California Edison released a statement. “We understand that Cal Fire’s investigation is ongoing,” said a portion of the statement, “and it would be premature for SCE to speculate about potential litigation associated with the recent mudslides.”
James Rainey is a reporter for NBC News, based in Los Angeles.